Saturday, July 16, 2011

Singapore's citizen soldiers should be engaged on challenges to the Army's vision for defending Singapore as Third Generation Networked Force

After the line "firepower of the SAF in a backpack" was penned in a commentary for The Straits Times some years ago, Defence Ministry speech writers and certain journalists adopted this catch phrase to describe how our soldiers pack more punch.

That punch will grow on 5 September 2011 when HIMARS rocket artillery batteries are commissioned into service with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) 23rd Battalion Singapore Artillery. The event at Khatib Camp starts at 15:00 H.

Even as new sensors and shooters such as HIMARS bring the masterplan for a Third Generation Networked Force from concept to reality, we must ensure that improvements to soldier systems are tailored to military requirements and not to national circumstances.

The Singapore Army is a force for war and force elements cannot be drawndown to appease bureaucrats or number crunchers.

Developments in the Singapore Army Infantry Section, which is the smallest tactical unit in the Army's order of battle (ORBAT), illustrate how better equipment, improved CONOPS and more realistic training has allowed our infantry to do their job better than ever before.

The 5.56mm bullets fired by 3rd Gen soldiers may be the same as those used by 1st Gen and 2Gen SAF infantry, but technology allows today's soldiers to sense and shoot with lethal effect while shielding him from return fire and sustaining his mission under demanding circumstances.

But while the Advanced Combat Man System has achieved much, defence planners must avoid becoming infatuated with technology by introducing gadgets which may end up overloading small units with too much information and cumbersome comms protocols.

The staying power of Hezbollah fighters during engagements with the Israelis did not come from superior information alone, but a wily appreciation of the battlespace and an ability to stay one step ahead of predictable responses by Israeli air power and armoured spearheads.

We must be clear that the Singapore Army's specific operational requirements are unique to Singapore's demographics. Also unique is the area of operations that 3rd Gen full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) and Operationally Ready NSmen (i.e. reservists) are likely to operate in during a hot war scenario that calls upon the SAF's full force potential.

The circumstances brought about by dwindling birth rates will result in smaller cohorts of NSFs in coming years. Defence planners must therefore keep their eyes on future enlistee numbers to assess how fluctuations in NSF intakes may affect SAF manpower demands. Just by studying birth statistics from previous years, these planners have a max head start of 18-years to tweak SAF ORBAT tables. They must make the most of such prescience as the headstart for any given cohort is pared down year by year.

Furthermore, changes to the ORBAT must be communicated clearly to citizen soldiers so they will continue to have confidence in the SAF. Defence observers should also be addressed in case they misread units taken offline (1 PDF, 2 GDS, 46 SAR, 20 SA, 22 SA etc) as a desperate move due to the manpower crunch and miscalculate the SAF's value as a deterrent force.

While such national circumstances make it tempting to do more with less, get more bang for buck by stretching every defence dollar, one should not lose sight of operational requirements such as mass, unit cohesion and the attitude of Singaporeans towards defence matters.

The 7-man Infantry Sections are an expedient way of maintaining the number of battalions on paper while dealing with smaller NSF intakes. But one must ask what is the bare minimum of boots on the ground needed to achieve mission success?

On paper, a 7-man Section trained, organised, equipped and supported as part of a 3rd Gen Networked Force is far superior to yesteryear's 9-man Section. No argument here.

But just as the weight of fire and accuracy of delivery has been sharpened in the Lion City, neighbouring armies are doing so too.

How then does one compare the benefits of adding two Matador anti-tank rockets to an SAF Section to the pair of RPG-7 rocket lockers in a Malaysian Army Section? One paper, the small units of both armies have anti-tank weapons. But the ones chosen to arm Singaporean soldiers are single-shot weapons. There is a standing joke that the first few minutes of a hot war with the Singapore Army will be the most intense as LAW gunners fire off their rockets to get rid of deadweight. What happens after that?

The Malaysian RPGs can be reloaded and fired for as long as their Sections are amply supplied with the folding fin rockets. Even if the supply train is interdicted, a Malaysian Army Section can carry a sizeable warload of RPG rockets into operations when first mobilised.

Sure, armchair strategists have all read about how RPGs are inaccurate in a crosswind. Much ado has also been made about the Matador's dual purpose warhead and its ability to be fired in enclosed areas (which RPG gunners cannot do without risk of killing themselves from the backblast).

But one must ask if the killing power of one Matador is worth more than the multi-shot RPG which is an infantryman's artillery? In my mind, the Matador's one-time use is a worrying liability.

As NSmen have noted on this blog and elsewhere, all it takes to whittle down the fighting prowess of a platoon is for a handful of NSmen to report sick or not report for a mobilisation at all - not a foregone conclusion as the Israelis have learned.

Having two teams of three soldiers led by a Section Commander means the Section has no bandwidth to exploit battlefield successes or pursue the enemy. For example, if Team 1 (with three soldiers) is assigned to breach a room with Team 2 and the Sector Commander in support, this Section will lack the muscle to pressure forward and exploit breaches in the enemy's main line of resistance. You can well imagine the difficulty in holding ground, establishing and defending a bridgehead if even one soldier in that Section becomes a casualty. At least one other must attend to the casualty, thus lowering the effective headcount to five.

Our decision to downsize years ago from a 9-man to 7-man Section thus came at a price.

The counter argument is that technology makes small units more vulnerable to detection. Small units risk being betrayed by ground and air sensors that observe and report their every move, day and night. Armed with such logic, some planners argue that a 9-man section adds two more targets to the battlespace. Therefore, small is better.

To be sure, the size, composition and TO&E of all tactical units is at best a compromise. Army planners must thus have the flexibility to deploy infantry units that have the punch and numbers to prevail as a one-size-fits-all orbat may not do the job. Having better educated soldiers and tailoring a training plan that pits warfighters to different situations helps in this regard.

Unit cohesion is another area that needs to be examined. This is the touchy feely aspect involving but not limited to commitment to defence (C2D) and how NSmen feel towards defending the Lion City. The thoughts, feelings and concerns of NSmen need urgent and constant assessment.

At a time when more SAF battalions are turning evergreen, NSmen from these evergreens may find team spirit in their NS units lacking because they served NS at different times. The disjoint in shared experiences robs NSmen of the camaraderie and esprit developed in mono-intake units who enlist, ORD and serve ICT together. This may affect the staying power of NSman battalions particularly during difficult situations when soldiers may have to make stay or fight decisions.

The publicity that ushered in the era of mono-intake units in the 1980s explained all the benefits of such arrangements well. The lasting impressions of these plus points damage today's Army when NSmen are left clueless why the SAF needs to raise, train and sustain evergreen units.

It is high time that the Singapore Army explain why evergreen units were introduced and how they are superior to the mono-intake arrangement. Were evergreen units conceived in response to national circumstances (i.e. the lower birthrate) or are evergreens necessary as they are the best fit for the SAF's new operational requirements?

I may stand corrected but I have yet to find any other National Service system make a compelling argument for having evergreen units where conscripts come and go like elements on a production line. And if war-tested forces have not adopted this approach to handling their defence manpower, what makes Singapore's system superior?

Apart from mass and unit cohesion, creative mindsets will help SAF Infantry fully exploit the benefits of better arms and battle tactics.

This includes asking if the one shot, one kill mantra is relevant in today's context for precision fire. Would a one shot, one wound approach result in killing the combat strength of hostile forces faster as additional soldiers would need to tend to a grieviously injured soldier?

Are less than lethal munitions really worth carrying into war? Should the space be used instead for an additional frag grenade?

And when one talks about lethality, is it really worth risking an SAF Section for room-by-room clearance during Urban Ops? Or can one ignore the bodycount of enemy troops and civilians and employ flamethrowers/fuel-air munitions that can also perform this hazardous task?

As we realise the 3rd Gen soldier, how should sensors and shooters be integrated to shorten the kill chain, maximise damage while reducing fratricide and civilian casualties?

The next logical step for the Singapore Army, which has gained experience operating unmanned aerial and terresterial sensors, is to graduate to unmanned weapons slaved to the sensor network.

Saturating the battlespace with unmanned sensors and weapons would add decisively to the Army's combat edge and usher in a new paradigm in land warfare.

The future may be closer than you think.


Shawn said...

I thought Fulltime National Servicemen (NSFs) and Operationally Ready National Servicemen (NSmen)aka reservists were the proper terminologies ???

David Boey said...

Thanks Shawn for the eagle eye. Have fixed it. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

It's me again, anonymous with a big peeve about the strength of our sections.

Good post and lots of points to ponder.

I have myself been out of circulation for sometime so am not thoroughly current on developments within our teeth units.

Your point on 'evergreen' battalions certainly raises legit concerns on unit cohesion.

To use a football analogy, the team that plays together more will work together better.

I'm not certain with regards the mathematics of our intake in relation to birth rate and available manpower.

This will certainly make interesting study vis-a-vis force composition and they way we manage units going through their (let me get this right)NSmen cycle (I always preferred the far simpler term Reservist myself)

If I remember correctly, back in the 80s when the army was 3 division sized, we took in an annual intact of 45,000 (NSFs), with 15K regulars making a total strength of 60K. It would seem like in current structure, the NSF cohort has shrunk to just over 39K with a total strength of 71K. That would suggest to me that where we have lost somewhat in conscript power, we have gained in regulars.

I'm not quite sure how the draw down works with the men going into their (sorry) reservist cycle over 10 years, mathematics not being my strong suit.

My 'educated guess' (amateur supposition )would be (taking away 25% of manpower presumably engaged in various admin non combat support function), that we should have a strength of 30K men per Reservist year ( on 2 years worth of NSF)for at least 6 years and then perhaps a loss of another 33% strength (for convenience) as they enter the remaining 4 years of liability, at 20K per reservist year.

If that makes any sense, we would get a rough total of 260K Reservist (not including the 71K NSF and regulars)= 330K (of course there will be further numbers in ready reserve and those with higher appointements/specialty roles)

What we can put out numbers wise will affect the way we organise in unit composition.

I would think in today's tendency toward specialisation in roles, it will (should) affect the way we set up our NSF units (and subsequent reservist service thereafter)

Certainly it would be interesting to have a study on this area (not sure, has anyone ever done one?)

After all, it is one thing to have (on Paper) raw numbers of troops but another thing altogether to ensure that these (particularly teeth units) have sufficient quality in manpower, and that our quest to incorporate various capbilities (in variety of units/missions) does not compromise the effectiveness and quality of the line units.

The other question mark on quality of manpower would be (and I believe this to be more sensitive an issue) how much effective potential manpower is lost to home team because of racial adjustments.

Whilst the fundamental approach of the SAF is sound in adopting technological multipliers (contrary to my rants, I am no luddite), it may run the risk of overstretch if the set up and proccess of unit transition from NSF to reservist is not carefully thought out.

If I may leave you with an instance which illustrates the issue of manpower/quality. My brother was serving in a BRC (Brigade Recon Company) for armour. He related to me the story of an occassion where when on exercise in Brunei, one of his scouts lost his 800 degree glasses. He was practically useless for remainder of mission and was a liability.

Gadgets are nice to have and helpful (to a certain extent) but if our manpower base is thin and our frontline units are stretched because we compromise quality for paper capability, I leave you to the rest of the conclusion.

An idea as to how our manpower shapes up currently? Would certainly make for an illuminating discussion IMO and may afford answers to how much stretch we have with teeth units and subsequently how they may be best organised.


Anonymous soldier

(Better sign of as someone I suppose)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous soldier, David,

A great piece of work as usual! My guess is that absolute maximum numbers are not the SAF's primary concern, because a total mobilisation would throttle the economy (the foreigners being at liberty to leave).

I would like to better understand the discussion on cohesion in evergreen units. Would you kindly discuss the extent to which NSmen are augmenting NSF formations? I presume companies of both kinds would fight alongside each other at brigade exercises without complaint. Or is the reality at the other extreme, with the SAF practicing individual augmentation with NSmen to round out sections?

PS I would logically guess that the total field force comprises NSF and recent NSmen formations, individually augmented with older NSmen. These men having families and being more valuable as civilian workers, would logically be mobilized as a last resort, forming Individual Augmentees in a sort of Individual Ready Reserve.

David Boey said...

Hi 18 July at 11:01 PM,
SAF evergreen units work by introducing NSF intakes at staggered intervals so the entire unit does not stand down when the NSFs ORD.

This means the full-strength unit always has NSFs being trained with one batch getting ready to ORD.

The newly ORDed personnel are assigned to NS (reservist) units to train alongside NSmen who ORDed in earlier batches. This prompted the point about unit cohesion vis-a-vis mono-intake battalions.

The evergreens and 7-man sections may indeed be great ideas but we're not hearing enough of the supporting arguments from MINDEF/SAF.

When NSmen compare what they undergo during ICT with war-tested forces that are not organised along the same lines, people may tend to wonder if we got our formula right.

I leave you to judge if such sentiments weaken or strengthen C2D.

Best Regards,


Anonymous said...

David, I'm going off topic but may I ask a question I've never found the answer to: how are NSFs and NSmen paid in time of war?

Do they receive NS allowance, regular's salary or make up pay?

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Where are these (company sized?) batches of NSFs posted when they ORD, and what are their units designated?

Btw you might note that some CSS and all service units operate on the evergreen model. Some are chronically undermanned and have lower priority for receiving their lower PES NSFs. The men come and go as individuals, batched into the annual ICT until their obligations are up. However these units are cohesive to varying degrees and have very different missions from infantry.

David Boey said...

Hi 19 July at 12:07 PM,
I reckon it would be the same as the arrangement for ICT. Not entirely sure though.

But if the SAF ever mobilises its full force potential for a hot war, I think the amount and payment date for one's make-up pay should be the least of your worries.

re: Evergreen units. They are integrated into NS units.

Best Regards,


Anonymous said...

True, although if my family is able to live with dignity while my son and I are taken away in defence of the country, it would strengthen my C2D.

I hope this is a question that you among others will one day be able to answer.

Anonymous said...

war salary...maybe this strikes at the heart of current theoretical infantry capabilities versus cultural/practical considerations.

After all, we all know Singaporeans must look after money first mah?

All the fancy gear will be for nothing if the men are not properly motivated.:D